There is a lot of emphasis at the Billings Public Library on new technology, from the banks of computer stations with high-speed connections to the automated self-checkout terminals.
It wasn’t that much different in 1969, the last time the library moved into a new building. Then, the new technology included books on disc (33 rpm records, actually) and enormous microfilm readers that looked like miniature World War I tanks.
These technological parallels were pointed out Saturday by Kevin Kooistra, the community historian at the Western Heritage Center, which is in the building that housed the city’s original Parmly Billings Library.
Kooistra’s talk was part of dedication ceremonies for the Billings Public Library, which opened to the public on Jan. 6.
His remarks reminded us that libraries are more than depositories of books, centers of knowledge or showcases of the latest information technology. Their most important function might be that they serve as what architect Will Bruder called a community’s “third place.”
We have our homes and our work places. Libraries are where we gather as a civic family.
“Somehow we are looking in our culture for community,” Bruder said. “We are desperate for it.”
Bruder, the Phoenix-based architect chiefly responsible for the breath-taking design of the new library, was the man of the hour during Saturday’s dedication.
Even if you haven’t visited the library yet, you’ve probably read many descriptions of its features. If you have been there, you probably know that no words or photographs quite do it justice. It’s too big, too organic a structure; you need to see it.
Jennie Stapp, the Montana state librarian, called the new building “a visual representation of what it means to gather as a community.”
And though other librarians around the state might feel a few pangs of jealousy, she said, they are also feeling “a resounding sense of pride.”
Bruder, who met with hundreds of Billings residents before and while he was designing the library, said he always tries to “create architecture that is about context, about the community.” Here, the context is a place where the plains meet the mountains, and where the city is embraced by the Rimrocks.
Another, homelier inspiration was drawn from the Dude Rancher Lodge, just south of the library, where Bruder always stays when he comes to Billings, and where he always sleeps with the drapes open. He liked the “weeping mortar” design at the Dude and brought it over to the new library.
“Good architecture happens because of a rigor between pragmatism and poetry,” he said.
Bill Cochran, director of the library for 25 years, said there were times when he thought he’d never see a new library.
“I can’t tell you how happy, grateful, honored and relieved I am to be here today,” he said. Cochran said Americans invented the free public library, and libraries remain virtually the only public space where everyone is welcome to gather.
One frequent complaint about libraries, here and elsewhere, is that they are too open and become a hangout for transients and street people.
Horacio Cantu, an employee of Guardian Security who was working at the library Saturday, said the security people have gotten pretty good at nipping problems in the bud.
People smelling of alcohol are not allowed in the building, adults without children can’t linger in the children’s area, and adults can browse for books in the teen area but can’t sit down.
Also, he said, “If they fall asleep, they get one warning and then they have to leave.”
After Bruder, the person most praised Saturday was Mr. Smith, the anonymous benefactor whose $2 million cash donation for architectural services kickstarted the project and ultimately paved the way for public approval of a $16 million bond to build the library.
During his talk in the library’s community room, which will look out over a patio and garden after the old library is demolished, Cochran called for a standing ovation for Mr. Smith. If Mr. Smith was there, it must have been an emotional moment.
Another special guest, though few knew it, was Jim Curry, the long-serving reference librarian who once wrote a lengthy history of the city’s libraries. Having suffered a stroke after his retirement and now living in Ekalaka, he made the long drive with his sister to attend the dedication.
Curry was on hand for Kooistra’s presentation, listening attentively. On display during the talk was a priceless artifact from the Western Heritage Center’s archives: an “Accession Book” in which were recorded the earliest books that were put on the shelves of the Parmly Billings Library after it opened on Montana Avenue in 1901.
The first books donated to the library — by Mrs. Frederick Billings, mother of Parmly, the library’s namesake — were the eight volumes of Herbert Howe Bancroft’s Chronicles of the Builders of the Commonwealth.
The next donations, from Mrs. Marie Eilers, were the complete works of Thomas Carlyle, in 16 volumes. The Accession Book noted that the works of Bancroft and Carlyle were all bound in morocco leather. Made of goatskin and imported originally from Morocco, the binding was highly prized for book covers from its introduction in Europe in the 1500s.
It, too, was once new and considered a marvel.
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